Everything You Need to Know About the Ukrainian Church

40% of Ukrainians declare themselves atheist. While this percentage is pretty high, you will be surprised at how much Ukrainians respect the church and at the huge part it plays in their lives. For an expat, the Ukrainian attitude toward religion might seem weird. There is a lot of superstitious beliefs and even sworn atheists follow rules like never leave your bag on the floor. So – what is the deal with the Ukrainian church?

A Brief History Of Christianity In Ukraine

Right now there are both Orthodox and Catholic Christians in Ukraine. There are also a few other denominations but these are usually small so we are not looking in detail. Although Orthodox Christianity has a history of not messing with politics, this is not quite the case for any of the Ukrainian churches. As of now, there are four major churches in Ukraine:

  • Ukranian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate
  • Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
  • Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (they are not Roman Catholics though)

The Ukrainians first became Christian when they weren’t even a separate state. During the middle ages, the state of Kievan Rus existed in these lands. Originally, the Rus’ people were pagans and they remained pagans for longer than other peoples in the region. The Christianization of Kievan Rus’ happened in stages but it was more or less done by the beginning of 11th century.

In 1054 the Great Schism happened. This was just a few years after Rus’ even accepted Christianity and now all of a sudden the Christian world was divided.

For both political and geographical reasons, the Kievan Rus’  Ukraine ended up on the Eastern Orthodox side. That is to say that the Ukranian Church did not start as an Orthodox one (because Orthodoxy did not exist back then) but it was soon forced to choose a side. And so a Ruthenian (that is the adjective for the Rus’ people) Orthodox Church was born. This was the original Ukranian church.

In the 16th century what is now Ukraine came under the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish (who are Catholics) decided Orthodoxy was now going be… frowned upon.

They made the Orthodox church pay high taxes, they limited access to higher state offices for Orthodox Christian, marriage between people of the two churches was frowned upon. Some Orthodox priests actually asked the Pope to take them under his jurisdiction. Essentially they gave up on Orthodoxy and formed what is now the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Why Do We Even Call It Greek?

The Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is not the church of Greek expats. If anything, Greek expats in Ukraine are Orthodox. The term Greek Catholic refers to a group of churches that are Catholic but do not follow all Catholic rules (to put it super simply). These churches are also called Eastern Catholic Churches, Oriental Catholic Churches, Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, or Uniate Churches.

The term Uniate is very popular in Ukraine. It means that the church was formed after an unia between a part of the Ruthenian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. This is also known as the Union of Brest. That is what happened when those 16th-century priests decided they have had enough of the Orthodox life under Polish rule.

The Ukranian Uniate Church is technically a Catholic church although it doesn’t necessarily look or feel like one. For instance, priests can and should be married. This is a relic from Orthodoxy, where the same rule applies. In the case of the Ukranian Catholic Church, priests’ sons often became priests themselves. They married within their social circle and so a cast was formed. Even today most priests come from families of priests, although it is not anything like what it used to be in the middle ages.

So we call it Greek but really is not Greek. This is just another way to refer to the Eastern European.

Ukrainian church

What Is The Deal With The Other Three Churches?

So Ukraine has a bit of a different Catholic church. The real question is what is up with the three Orthodox churches. Before we delve into that, let me just warn you that not all Ukrainians are even aware of it. To most people, a church is a church. If an when they go they don’t really mind whether it is Russian Orthodox or Aurocephalous.

This makes it quite hard to make an accurate estimate of how many people belong to each of these churches. An easier way to calculate how big they are is to count the number of parishes but this doesn’t necessarily tell you which is more popular.

Here is what you have:

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Ukraine gained its’ independence. Shortly after, an independent (autocephalous) church was established. It was all good at first. The Soviet repressed it but much less than they did the Russian Orthodox Church. Then, during and after World War II there was a shift of power.

The Russian Orthodox Church became the only church recognized by the (officially atheist) regimen.

The clergy that refused to join were executed. During the Cold War, the Russian Orthodox Church was implied in various state affairs. Some say they were but puppets of the Communist Party. There was a lot of persecution and even brutality during those years.

There was a Ukrainian Church but actively participating in anything even vaguely religious could get you in trouble. Not officially, no, but there are stories upon stories about people getting beaten, persecuted, denied opportunities etc. for being religious.

Ukrainian church

After The Soviet Union Fell Apart

After the Iron Curtain was lifted, the Autocephalous church was restored. Then, shortly after, a power struggle within the Russian Orthodox church led to a schism (separation). Patriarch Filaret, a former leader of the church, came under pressure to resign his position. Resign he did but then he recanted his resignation. He said that there was undue pressure, even threats for him to resign.

Filaret formed the Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate although he did not officially come to lead it until years later. This church has not been recognized by other Orthodox churches because of the Russian pressure.

Patriarch Filaret is a very controversial figure himself. He has participated in the persecution of Ukrainian churches that refused to join the ROC (Russian Orthodox Church). Russian priest and dissident Gleb Yakunin accused him of collaborating with the KGB. Yakunin fought for freedom of choice and religious freedom in the 50s and 60s. He suffered a great deal in the hands of the regime that Filaret supported.

At the same time, Filaret is regarded fondly by Ukrainians. In 2014, amidst the Russian military incursions, he concluded about Russian president Putin that “Satan went into him, as into Judas Iscariot”. In a way, people see the Kyivan Patriarchate as an opposing power to the Russians.

What You Need To Know As An Expat About The Ukrainian Church

As a foreigner in Ukraine, you have to be aware that this is still a sensitive subject.

If you are planning to move there, or even if you are just travelling, I recommend you read up on the Russian intervention in Ukraine.

These are very recent events that still spur debate. In general, your best policy is to avoid these topics. The way Ukrainian people are politics come up pretty often and pretty casually.

Still, as a foreigner, refrain from expressing any firm beliefs. There are a lot of points of view to Ukraine’s situation (including the situation of the Ukrainian church). You are better steering clear of these topics.

What About Actual People

This was one long article on history and politics. What about actual people? Well, this might vary depending on where you go but in my experience Ukrainians are not big believers. Yes, they are superstitious and they also get very political about religion. When it comes to actual Christianity, most people aren’t really practising Christians.

That being said, Ukrainians have a lot of respect for the church and for priests. They go to service on Easter and on Christmas night. Weddings almost always include a church. Funerals too. Even if they are atheists, most Ukrainians frown upon any jokes about the church or about religion. Just be a nice person, avoid insensitive comments and you should be fine.

Finally, it is ok if the entire situation seems confusing.

As I mentioned, not all Ukrainians are even aware of this.

The more important part is you respect their beliefs and traditions. Try not to question them too much, either.

You never know what superstition your new friend might hold dear. Also, wear decent clothes if you go to visit a church. This is cultural appropriation 101.

Good luck and happy Ukraine travels!

Read Next: Is It Worth Your Time to Learn Ukrainian?

  • August 3, 2017
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